Two phone calls turned the fortunes of Liberty senior first baseman Alex Close around.
One added to his frustrations after a sophomore slump.
The other brought his confidence back.
Close, who two years ago set school and conference records for home runs by a freshman (14) while hitting .304, had been named NCBWA Freshman All-America. But his sophomore year was a different story.
Hitting just .223 with three home runs, he struggled. And that’s when the first momentous call came.
An official from the prestigious Cape Cod Summer League called to disinvite him, a humbling experience that had Close wondering what would happen next. But then he received that second call, one from Hank Morgan, a coach from the Coastal Plain League who Close had competed against the previous summer.
“He said, ‘I can tell you’re lacking confidence right now,’” Close said. “‘You come up here, we’re going to throw you in the middle of the lineup and you’re going to hit like you did, and we’re not going to worry about what happened this year.’
“That was exactly what I needed to hear from somebody, was somebody that still believed in me, because you go a whole year struggling like that people start to lose faith in you. At that point I was still a 19-year-old kid who was struggling with confidence, letting people down. I thought it was obvious God wanted me to go here.”
Close didn’t have the best summer numbers-wise, but instead of worrying about his performance, he focused on having fun. His team, the Peninsula Pilots, won the championship that summer, and Close said the experience rejuvenated his spirit for playing baseball every day.
The Hoover, Ala., native bounced back in a big way last season, hitting .323 with nine home runs and a team-high 46 RBI while earning all-conference honors as a junior. He was also recognized off the field, becoming one of two juniors to be named to the Capital One Academic All-American first team and being voted a team captain as a junior by his teammates.
When Close was choosing where to play in college, he picked Liberty over Samford, a school that was about five minutes from his home and where his father had played baseball.
Still, he did not expect to start right away. He actually pitched in relief on opening day and played off and on during the first few weeks. Then some teammates got hurt, opening up a spot in the lineup, and Close took advantage. He wound up leading the conference in home runs and was third in slugging percentage.
But the momentum didn’t carry over to his sophomore season. Liberty had a challenging opening series against No. 5 South Carolina and Close struggled, which caused him frustration right from the start.
“At that point in my career I was still not as mature mentally as I am now,” Close said. “I think I started overthinking and I started trying to change a bunch of stuff instead of just relaxing and letting the game come to me like I did my freshman year.
“My freshman year there wasn’t much thinking, it was kind of go out there and hit. My sophomore year I started thinking people are going to be pitching me differently and all that kind of stuff, and I let one thing start to snowball on me. Before I knew it I was halfway through the year and I was in a big slump.”
Still, Liberty won the Big South tournament and made the NCAA tournament. After his refreshing summer, he focused on getting back to the postseason as a junior instead of individual goals.
“Coming into last year it wasn’t about proving everybody wrong,” Close said. “It was more of I need to help this team because we’re good enough to get back to a regional.”
Sure enough, Liberty made it back-to-back NCAA appearances for the first time in program history, where it lost in the Charlottesville Regional.
Close was selected by the Kansas City Royals in the 27th round of the 2014 MLB Draft but he chose to return to school. With newfound confidence at the plate, he hopes to lift the Flames – No. 25 in the preseason Baseball America poll – to an even deeper postseason run this time.